Runoff Outcomes Could Shift San Antonio City Council’s ‘Progressive’ Tilt

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The San Antonio City Hall Council Chambers at the Municipal Plaza Building.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The San Antonio City Hall Council Chambers at the Municipal Plaza Building.

The outcome of three City Council runoffs could cause San Antonio’s progressive-leaning City Council of the last two years to swing back to a more philosophically divided body, posing to a challenge to whoever becomes mayor.

Voters in districts 2, 4, and 6 will choose their representatives in a June 8 runoff amid a citywide vote for mayor. But how effective that mayor will be depends largely on his ability to gather a majority of votes from council members willing to back his initiatives.

Four out of  seven incumbents have endorsed Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose platform is largely viewed as progressive. Likewise, his initiatives largely have been supported by most Council incumbents except Clayton Perry (D10) and, on occasion, John Courage (D9).

While mayoral challenger Greg Brockhouse found himself in the minority as a councilman opposed to key issues – such as keeping the City’s property tax rates flat, adopting an affordable housing policy, and others – the runoffs provide an opportunity to nearly flip that script.

If elected, Jada Andrews-Sullivan in District 2, Adriana Rocha Garcia in District 4, and Melissa Havrda in District 6 likely would skew towards Nirenberg’s policy priorities, some political observers said. Meanwhile, Keith Toney in District 2, Johnny Arredondo in District 4, and Andy Greene in District 6 would tend more towards Brockhouse’s agenda. That would give Brockhouse – if elected mayor – five votes, leaving him needing a sixth “swing” vote he would need for a majority.

Ideological differences could stymy the agenda of whoever becomes mayor with council-splitting votes. Nirenberg hasn’t lost a single major vote in his first term, but recently the council has become more divided on votes such as paid sick leave that impact local businesses.

Most runoff candidates would not say who they would prefer in the center seat on the City Council dais. Among the incumbents, Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Ana Sandoval (D7), and Manny Pelaez (D8) have endorsed Nirenberg. The remaining three incumbents – Courage, Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Perry – have declined to endorse a mayoral candidate.

While supporting Nirenberg, Sandoval said she isn’t going to be actively campaigning on his behalf.

The voters just told us on May 4 that the majority of voters in District 7 want me to continue the work that I’m doing,” she said, especially in the realms of public engagement, drainage projects, climate change, and infrastructure. “Right now, that looks like me collaborating on those issues with the mayor.”

“I’ll work with anyone,” Sandoval added.

That’s generally the same pragmatic answer each runoff candidate gave to the Rivard Report when asked who they would prefer in the mayor’s seat. At the local level, there’s more nuance to people and issues than simple party lines and there are few issues that receive a rubber stamp from district representatives.   

Council members enjoy a largely nonpartisan environment because the services and decisions they represent are apolitical –  fixing potholes aren’t inherently liberal or conservative. In some respects, Sandoval said, neither is climate mitigation and preparedness for extreme weather events associated with climate change.

“It’s not a matter of progressive or not progressive,” said Sandoval. “It’s do we want to be good stewards of our people and property.”

District 2 candidate Toney said he is commonly “pigeonholed” as a conservative but that he considers each issue on its merits. As a deeply religious person, he said he follows the Bible and the U.S. Constitution.

Toney said he disagreed with Council’s decision to oust Chick-fil-A from an airport concessions contract, a move Nirenberg supported and Brockhouse voted against. 

“I thought it was a mistake to try to deny this company a place in our airport and I think that there are going to be and have been political repercussions for us,” Toney said. 

Toney said he would work well with whoever is elected mayor. While he’s a fiscal conservative, he approves of the City’s involvement in supporting and perhaps developing affordable housing.

“Everybody wants to move the city forward,” he said. “Either one of those candidates wants to do the same thing. … They’re different perhaps on how we do that.”

Andrews-Sullivan considers herself an independent.

“It’s all about doing what you know is best for your community … with anyone – the mayor and the nine other Council members – you have to work on that bond,” she said.

When working with the next City Council, she said, “it’s about “helping them understand the dynamics of your district.”

In District 4, Garcia is viewed as a more progressive candidate, but she said she would approach each issue as a representative of her constituency. Rey Saldaña, who is serving his fourth and final Council term, has endorsed her.

I’m right down the middle on everything,” she said. “I look at the person, the issue, and then make an informed vote directly related to the issue. … I won’t just represent myself and my ideologies – I am potentially representing the entire district.”

While she supports the City’s foray into affordable housing funding, she would like to see a better cost-benefit analysis of the climate action plan backed by Nirenberg. Brockhouse has said that the draft Climate Action Plan needs a more thorough cost analysis, and on Tuesday said he would scrap most of it for a more “business friendly” policy.

Garcia’s opponent, Arredondo, has the clearest political alignment; he ran for Texas House District 124 as a Republican in 2018 following an unsuccessful 2017 run in District 4.

Arredondo agrees with Brockhouse on the Chick-fil-A issue and other issues such as reducing the City’s tax rate. What has resonated with voters, according to Arredondo, is overspending by the City government. He points to arts funding as a potential area to cut.

“The arts do need some help, there’s no doubt about that … but also the arts community needs to be self-sufficient,” he said, and streets, sidewalks, and infrastructure are more important.

Greene said he considers himself to have “a more conservative philosophy” but noted that he’ll do what’s best for his district and constituents. He used to work on Brockhouse’s District 6 staff, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always agree, Greene said.

For example, Greene said he did not support the firefighters union-backed city charter amendments that Brockhouse endorsed.

“I’m not an automatic vote for Greg, and I wouldn’t be for Ron either,” Greene said. Greene also worked in the office of former District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez and served as his campaign treasurer. Lopez, a Democrat who now represents Texas House District 125, has endorsed Greene in this race.

While he and Brockhouse “do align on quite a few things, that doesn’t mean our philosophies are the same,” Greene said.

Greene’s runoff opponent, Havrda, described herself as a progressive at heart, but one who is driven by practicality.

(left) Andy Greene and Melissa Cabello Havrda are running to fill the empty seat of District 6 just one term after Greg Brockhouse was elected as he runs for Mayor.

Composite / Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Andy Greene and Melissa Cabello Havrda are runoff opponents in District 6.

“I have a good relationship with both Mayor Nirenberg and Councilman Brockhouse,” she said. “They’re one vote. We’re not a strong-mayor system …  Whoever wins, if they have an initiative that works for District 6, I’m with them.”

While issues such as the Chick-fil-A debate may get people taking sides in a mayoral race, political leanings mean less to the average voter when it comes to Council members, Saldaña said.

“Once you start describing the job to [voters] it’s not a question of red or blue,” said Saldaña.  

15 thoughts on “Runoff Outcomes Could Shift San Antonio City Council’s ‘Progressive’ Tilt

  1. For the sake of discussion, I’ll ask this question again: what is progressive about maintaining the status quo? The city continues to “enjoy” structural poverty, limited upward mobility, economic segregation, and poor socioeconomic development. Yes, we’ve seen some progress around the edges, but we’ve long needed a deeper dive. The city’s “urban planning” model has served the business community well, but not for our vulnerable populations, which includes our middle class.

    Citizens need to examine the real effects of this adopted “policy direction” undertaken, rather than merely reacting to particular programs, projects, initiatives, innovations, or activities. For the past 35 yrs, the city has had only one major policy direction, yet virtually no one talks about the socioeconomic consequences of this narrow, limited, tunnel view. There are other viable alternatives, but only if you know & are curious as to where to look.

    • Well-said, Fernando. The Rivard Report has a vested interest in re-defining ‘progressive’ to match their own business-friendly, development-friendly agenda. I am a progressive, and so are Bernie and AOC. No one currently on this City Council – or poised to win the runoffs – is genuinely progressive. Voting against Chick-Fil-A just means that you are a good person: the absolute most basic decency towards fellow humanity. Let’s see all these center-right folk that the Rivard Report wishes to re-define as progressive act beyond the most basic.

    • Please share other viable alternatives or what website to find them so we can be more informed of what has worked in other cities and countries.

      • For starters, everyone needs to examine the city’s long-range, adopted plan, known as SA 2020, complemented by related plans SA Tomorrow & the upcoming SA Connect. Take a red pen & underline anything you don’t understand or want to learn more about. Ask: what is the city’s real agenda? How does it measure “success”? Who benefits, who doesn’t? How much has been subsidized to promote a business development metroplex “vision”, rather than a plan for S.A. residents?

        Challenge folks like me to address any/all key questions, concepts, terms, and ideas. Compare the “urban planning” model with a socioeconomic one. Why is S.A. the most economically segregated urban city in the U.S. despite having “the best city manager in the country”? Ask deep questions, read good material from planning journals & reputable blogs. Incidentally, in 30 yrs of review, S.A. is very rarely mentioned as a worthy planned city. Much more to discuss, as time/space allows. Thx for being curious.

  2. I think you are spot on! One of the underlying themes appears to be the never-ending struggle between conservatives and progressives over the control of the city government. Interesting election.
    Henry Flores

  3. Where do I sign up to shift the balance back to sanity in our city government? If that means voting for Brockhouse how many votes can I cast?

    • You may cast one vote. That’s pretty much the standard number of votes everyone gets.

      Bigly Brockhouse voters, the most informed!

  4. “Four out of seven incumbents have endorsed Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose platform is largely viewed as progressive.”

    On which planet? Nirenberg and Brockhouse are both center-right candidates. We see what you are trying to do, and it ain’t gonna work. There are currently no progressives on the city council, and thanks to all the business interests this ‘news’ outlet serves, there won’t be in June either.

    • Absolutely. But one of these guys is going to be mayor and in that light it is clear that one is going to be somewhat reasonable and the other ghastly. To put a fellow in that has trouble managing his life and has draconian ideas about what is good for citizens would be a travesty.

  5. This is very shoddy reporting. The author claims that certain candidates are progressive, but does not provide enough evidence to support those claims. Do the candidates who she claims are progressive have policy positions that match those of commonly-acknowledged progressives, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren? Journalism 101. Shame on the Rivard Report.

  6. Never before in San Antonio has the link between the words progressive and progress been more important. I am first to say that so many things can and should be done to make progress in our city for the sake of the citizens. But it is happening, slow as it is.
    Now comes a challenger whose notion of progress is ‘pro-business.’ For youngsters out there who haven’t seen it in the past or don’t recognize it now, it’s citizen and infrastructure rape for the sake of a few financially favored, connected and greedy. It results in regressive and backwards quality of life issues. Stooges, we all pay the bad piper for decades and sometimes centuries because of the misdirection of our energies and resources.

    • The challenger whose notion of progress is ‘pro-business’… Is that Nirenberg or Brockhouse? Nirenberg was all buddy-buddy with the business community during the propositions battle. Let’s not pretend like Ron and Greg are that different from each other.

  7. No one can claim to be progressive if they despise organized labor as does Nirenberg. His opposition to the firefighters will never fade away.
    I like neither candidate and I see no reason to vote either way.

  8. I’m a comparatively new Texan. We’ve lived here a little over nine years. I’ve voted in every election, and read enough of San Antonio’s recent political history to form an opinion to guide my voting. I’ll take advantage of early voting in the coming election, because I can choose the location that’s most convenient to get to, and that has the shortest wait time.

    I will vote for Ron Nirenberg because he seems to belong to the line of most effective recent mayors, such as Lila Cockrell, Henry Cisneros, Nelson Wolff, Phil Hardberger, Julian Castro, and Ron Nirenberg. I view Ivy Taylor’s term as an unfortunate hiccup in the city’s history.

    Some of my other opinions, stated only because they may cast light on my voting preferences, are:

    progress requires expenditure, and taxes are the necessary means of being able to afford that expenditure; I’m grateful to be able to afford my taxes, and I pay them willingly; I don’t live in an exclusive neighborhood or belong to a country club, but I view taxes as being equivalent to the fees that those residents and members pay to belong in them – taxes are the fees we pay to be Americans and Texans.

    I agree with former posters who are dissatisfied with our inequalities in income, housing, and social standing, but no single election is going to remedy all of them, and we need to continue to work for their improvement;

    I think Pre-K for SA is a wonderful program, and I think Mr. Brockhouse is wrong to say that he could oppose its renewal if forthcoming data “didn’t show positivity and incremental growth in the child’s educational outcomes.” That’s not how it should be judged – it is intended to remedy the effects of poverty and illiteracy, thereby putting its recipients on an equal footing with their peers, not to produce superior students or geniuses.

    Enough of my opinions and background – the success of the approaching election will be dependent on a large turnout of informed voters. The measly turnouts of 7% and 11% in the two previous elections are not indicative of a populace who care enough about the progress of our city. How can our candidates and elected officials know what we want if we don’t cast votes?

  9. Obviously, you are NEW to San Antonio. Pls explain what you mean by “effective” in the context of our socioeconomic realities, going back 40 years?
    This doesn’t mean that Brockhouse is a better or superior choice, just that we need to unpack much of what passes for intelligent discussion; too much is simple & superficial. Pls set aside personalities & look at the effect of their “policy direction” which accounts for our standing as a poor city.

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